Chun Doo-hwan, Deborah Smith, Gwandju Uprising, Han King, historical fiction, Human Acts, Korean Literature, Man Booker International long list, Man Booker International Prize, May 18 198, Novels, Park Chung-hee, South Korea, The Vegetarian, Translated fiction
I dislike characterizations of authors as fearless. Unless writing in a regime where censorship can result in incarceration or death, writing is not a fearless act. The subject of written work can be fierce. Capturing the event(s) in context and exploring the emotional consequences of them is an art form of an accomplished writer.
Han Kan, the Korean recipient of the 2017 Man Booker International Prize for “The Vegetarian” is such an author. “Human Acts’ recounts the Gwandju Uprising in the southeastern South Korean City that started on May 18, 1980. The Introduction by translator Deborah Smith is interesting not only because it summarizes the military crackdown on dissent by Chun Doo-hwan after the coup overthrowing Park Chung-hee, and discusses nuances in translating the Korean language into English.
The Uprising is viewed from the perspective of the active student participants in the protest, bystanders, their friends and families, and a later editor’s compilation of recollections of the event. The traumatic memories, particularly of torture, maintain the fierceness of these events. A majority of innocents who are swept up in these events because political fear is the goal regardless of facts. North Korean Communist infiltration was the trumped excuse for the expansive martial law imposed on the more democratic Gwandju metropolitan area. Gwandju is relatively far from Seoul and the DMZ. In the increasingly industrial important southeast of Korea where there were later uprisings in Bosun (then Posun) and Masan, control was important to the new central government. Gwandju, now the 6th largest city in South Korea, is still under central government control, unlike the more conservative and larger Bosun.
The core of the plot is the death of a middle-school boy, Dong-ho, who because of his youth was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The other students involved in the protest or handling the corpses for family viewing at the University gym, considered him too young to be there. Few were political. The irony of youth is that they were only three years older, than Dung-ho and should also not have been there. They did not understand their youth and vulnerability.
Recurring themes in the novel are the separation of body and soul and the meaning of humanity. There are probably no answers for the latter, but Ms. Kang has an interesting twist on the former.
This is another work in the unfortunate “I Will Bear Witness” genre. It would be nice if humanity could extinguish the need for such works.